Sheffield United: Promotion dream dies in the cruellest of fashions at Nottingham Forest

After producing a fightback which left them on the verge of becoming legends, Sheffield United’s promotion dream died in the cruellest of fashions.

Tuesday, 17th May 2022, 11:12 pm

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Sheffield United defender delivers 'embarrassing' verdict on Nottingham Forest c...

On penalties. At the City Ground. Following a Championship play-off semi-final which saw them come back from the death against a Nottingham Forest side who appeared to be cruising when Brennan Johnson fired them into a 3-1 aggregate lead before Morgan Gibbs-White and John Fleck turned the fixture on its head.

It seemed absurd that Gibbs-White, who has done so much to fuel United’s Premier League challenge, missed the decisive spot-kick after Oliver Norwood and Conor Hourihane had also failed to convert. Joe Lolley fluffed his lines for Forest.

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Morgan Gibbs-White of Sheffield United celebrates his strike against Nottingham Forest: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

United had hoped the occasion might inhibit opponents with lashings of talent but less experience. To begin with it didn’t, although their inability to learn the lessons of last weekend’s meeting between these two teams was initially as much of a boost to Forest as the banners, pre-match fireworks and Johnson’s first-half strike. Unmarked inside the area and profiting from a Sam Surridge assist, the youngster’s 19th of the campaign looked remarkably similar to Jack Colback’s opener during the first instalment of this doubleheader.

Still, what United lacked in muscle memory they made up for with guts. Had Brice Samba not denied Iliman Ndiaye during the closing stages of extra-time, the shoot-out would have been averted.

United have grown increasingly reliant upon Ndiaye, Sander Berge and Gibbs-White of late and Heckingbottom’s holy trinity dragged them back level on the night - the Frenchman and Berge, whose effort on Saturday had left the tie on a knife edge, combining for their colleague to turn home - before Fleck pounced.

Heckingbottom had summoned his inner-Bowie before kick-off, telling the visitors they could be heroes if they progressed. Jack Robinson took a more combative approach, branding Forest’s celebrations after Johnson had scored their second goal of the first leg as “embarrassing.” Either way, once the defender and his team mates stepped into a frenzied arena, they were aware this would be a match like no other.

Sheffield United's George Baldock and John Egan celebrate John Fleck's goal during the Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final, second leg match at the City Ground, Nottingham: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Translating possession into clear cut openings had proven difficult for United during Saturday’s contest. Not so here, with John Egan and Ndiaye both spurning opportunities before Johnson pounced. The latter, sent darting into the box by Gibbs-White’s perfectly weighted pass, will certainly have been disappointed not to beat Samba and provide United with an early breakthrough.

Instead, it was Forest who landed what at one stage appeared to be the defining blow of the contest. Picked apart by Scott McKenna’s punt forward and Surridge’s cross, United’s defending was as miserable as the look on Wes Foderingham’s face as Johnson, for the second time in 72 hours, smashed the ball past him and into the back of the net.

As the atmosphere turned from celebratory to confrontational - Heckingbottom being cautioned for his part in a touchline melee - so United’s work became increasingly fractious. At least until Gibbs-White scored for the 13th time since arriving from Wolverhampton Wanderers on loan.

If this turns out to be his last appearance for the club, the 22-year-old will be sorely missed.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is booked by the referee Michael Oliver: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

United’s second was much more simple. But even more significant with George Baldock powering into position before finding Fleck who touched it beyond Samba.

Nottingham Forest: Samba, Spence, Worrall ©, Colback, Zinckernagel (Lolley 70), Surridge (Davis 75), Johnson, Yates, McKenna, Cook, Garner (Cafu 118). Not used: Horvath, Figueiredo, Laryea, Mighten.

Sheffield United: Foderingham, Norrington-Davies, Baldock (Osborn 108), Basham, Egan, Robinson, Norwood, Fleck (Hourihane 106), Berge, Gibbs-White,. Ndiaye. Not used: A Davies, B Davies, Uremovic, Osula, Jebbison.

Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).

Penalties: Norwood (Missed), Johnson (Scored), Hourihane (Missed), Cafu (Scored), Berge (Scored), Cook (Scored), Ndiaye (Scored), Lolley (Missed), Gibbs-White (Missed).